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  • Writer's pictureJoshua U.

2024 NBA Playoffs: A Trade Deadline Dichotomy Sends Mavs To West Finals

Tomorrow is not guaranteed. Live for today. 

That's not just an extremely basic Instagram caption. It's also the philosophy that decided the Western Conference Semifinal series between the Dallas Mavericks and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Mavs' superstar Luka Doncic celebrates following Dallas' 117-116 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6 of the West Semis. Doncic delivered a 29 pt triple-double in the win.

Mavs' superstar Luka Doncic celebrates following Dallas' 117-116 series clinching victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6 of the West Semis.

Let's go back in time real quick, shall we? Not too far: let's just go back to exactly 14 weeks (about 3 months) ago. February 8th, 2024. That would be the date of this season's trade deadline. Out of all the teams in the NBA, the Mavericks and Thunder especially found themselves in intriguing positions in the West in each franchise's own way.  

The Dallas Mavericks, despite being led by two scoring dynamos in Luka Doncic & Kyrie Irving, found themselves outside of the top 6 in the West -- 8th place to be exact, in Play-In territory. A disappointing position for Dallas despite their above-average 28-23 record, even when you consider the insane amount of good teams & star power in the conference.  

Speaking of disappointing -- that is absolutely the word of choice to describe how the Mavs' season ended last year after trading for Kyrie. The Mavs were in a similar spot at last season's trade deadline when they acquired Irving from the Brooklyn Nets to pair with their young franchise superstar in Doncic, and while Luka and Kyrie proved to be an impossible guard at times, the Mavs once-solid defense completely fell off a cliff after the deal, and Dallas wound up not even qualifying for the Play-In tourney, finishing an equal parts stunning & embarrassing 11th place in the West. 

Dallas Mavericks stars Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic.

The Irving/Doncic pairing in Dallas got off to a rocky start following last season's trade deadline, but the two have truly found their footing in 2023-24.

So, needless to say, the Mavs' sense of urgency would surely be high on this day. There was no doubting the veteran championship-level talent at the top of the roster, but the ancillary role-playing pieces needed some tweaking. With the right moves, Dallas could elevate their ceiling to unforeseen heights in the Luka era, which was paramount to achieve. Luka is a generational-level superstar. When you get one of those, you must aim for a title every season. Dallas had already gotten to a Western Conference Finals in Luka's age-23 season two seasons prior, and ever since then, "win-now mode" has (rightfully so) been the Mavericks' mindset. 

The Oklahoma City Thunder, on the other hand, were in a stunning position for one of the 3 youngest teams in the NBA. Led by 25-year-old, bona fide MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, talented redshirt rookie Chet Holmgren and young sharpshooter Jalen Williams, OKC stood at 3rd in the West. 3rd! You rarely ever see teams that young & unseasoned find themselves that high in the standings, but OKC kept proving themselves at every turn, in large part due to this season's Coach of the Year winner in the young mastermind, Mark Daigneault. They were top 10 in both offensive & defensive efficiency, led by their two-way star guard in SGA, who at this point in the year, averaged up over 30 points per game AND over 2 steals per game -- a dual threat feat only accomplished by three of the greatest guards in NBA history: Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, and Stephen Curry. 

Left to right, young Thunder stars: 23-year-old Jalen Williams, 22-year-old Chet Holmgren, 25-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Left to right, young Thunder stars: 23-year-old Jalen Williams, 22-year-old Chet Holmgren, 25-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The Thunder had been rebuilding ever since the departures of Russell Westbrook and Paul George via trade after the 2018-19 season. Buoyed by a remarkable combined return for both players from Thunder general manager Sam Presti, which included Gilgeous-Alexander, Chris Paul & ELEVEN first-round picks, the Thunder's mission was clear. Be patient, stockpile picks, draft & develop well. Just 4 seasons later, OKC was now fully recognized as being in the midst of one of the fastest rebuilds in league history, and still had all those picks in the war chest to strike for a star player whenever the opportunity would present.  

What's impressive about this rebuild, though, was that OKC's roster looked good enough to not even warrant the need for another star player. The team had some minor flaws, such as their lack of size & strength in the interior, and their need for another capable shooter that could cash open looks generated by their young Big 3. But minor flaws are easy to address with the glut of FRPs that OKC held at their disposal, right? 

Oddly enough, OKC's aforementioned trade deadline needs were identical to Dallas'. The Mavs had a promising young rookie big of their own in Dereck Lively but were still in need of reinforcements up front. The Mavs long desired a capable "3 & D" wing since pairing Doncic with Irving a calendar year ago and signed Grant Williams away from the Celtics in the offseason to address that need. But, following reports of Mavs players' discontentment with Williams & his annoying personality in the locker room, it became clear that Williams was not the answer both on-and-off the court for Dallas.  

Two teams. Similar needs. Deadline Day. And, when the dust settled after the clock struck 3:00pm EST?  


Dichotomy, for those that aren't aware, is defined as a contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different.  

In this case, there wound up being a stark dichotomy between the front offices of these two franchises in terms of their approaches to improving their rosters at the deadline. 

Dallas' trades for P.J. Washington (left) and Daniel Gafford (right) launched the Mavericks into title contention, and both have been key in helping take the Mavs to their 2nd Conference Finals in 3 years.

Dallas found their deadline day reinforcements in P.J. Washington & Daniel Gafford; each player being dealt away from a bottom-feeding team in the Eastern Conference. Washington was acquired in a deal from the then-10-win Charlotte Hornets in exchange for the bothersome Grant Williams; Gafford was picked up from the then 9-win Washington Wizards. Just merely on paper, the two seemed like seamless fits on Dallas' roster. Both Washington & Gafford had proven to be solid defensive players, and both guys would provide increased floor spacing in their own individual way; Washington's court spacing as a catch-and-shoot three baller & Gafford's vertical spacing as a lob threat in pick-and-roll.  

Dallas' positive theories about the two's addition to the roster were proven right on the court. The Mavericks went an incendiary 22-7 post-deadline to vault themselves up from 8th in the West to 5th at regular season's end. Washington did indeed turn out to be the quintessential wing player alongside Luka and Kyrie, as he took on the challenge of guarding the opponent's best player every night and also cashed in on his fair share of timely corner threes. Gafford turned out to be a historically good fit in Dallas' scheme; blocking nearly 2 shots per game while in a timeshare with Dereck Lively and posting career-high averages of 11.2 PPG and 78% FG in 21 games played with the Mavs. That’s not all, though -- Gafford nearly broke Wilt Chamberlain's NBA record of 35 consecutive field goals made, as Gafford posted a run of 33 straight makes without a miss over a five-game span.  

Note to reader: if you were not already aware, if you break or almost break ANY of Wilt Chamberlain's records, you are doing insanely well for yourself. 

The notable part (at least to me) about Dallas' deadline coup at the time was that both Washington and Gafford would have been PERFECT fits for OKC as well. Like, as perfect as perfect could get. Instead, OKC's trade deadline dealing left much to be desired. Their only move was the acquisition of long-removed, former All-Star Gordon Hayward in exchange for low-activity players Tre Mann, Vasilije Micic and Davis Bertans. Not a lot of headline-making, and not a lot of production out of Hayward as well once he touched down in Oklahoma City -- Hayward only averaged a tick over 5 points per in 17 minutes per game in 26 total games played with the Thunder.  

Oklahoma City Thunder's Gordon Hayward.

Gordon Hayward's impact on OKC post-deadline can be described as marginal at best, as he didn't even finish the postseason in the Thunder's rotation.

This being OKC's lone move was especially confusing when you once again consider just how many assets Presti and co. had available to offer in exchange for actual win-now talent. Their asset pool greatly outvalued the Mavericks', but OKC just flat-out decided not to go for it the same way Dallas did, which speaks to the two franchises' dichotomy in timeline. It seemed as if OKC, despite their well-ahead-of-schedule rebuild, operated from a predetermined mindset that they were not going to deal away a single first-rounder at any point this season, no matter what. 

Despite the lack of juice at the deadline, OKC's young stars turned it up a few notches higher than they had already and raced to a 22-9 close to the regular season and became the youngest team in NBA history to clinch the #1 seed in either conference. Even more impressively for OKC, they beat out the defending champion Denver Nuggets and the defensively dominant Minnesota Timberwolves in doing so. A remarkable accomplishment for a truly special & connected group of young players -- but the question remained: just how far could this inexperienced team go in the postseason, even as the West's 1st seed? 

Oklahoma City Thunder huddled together for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's postgame interview.

OKC made these types of childlike postgame huddles a tradition throughout 2023-24, showcasing the squad's unique togetherness & camaraderie.

With OKC finishing as the 1st seed in the West and Dallas finishing 5th, the two squads would fall on the same side of the conference's bracket. The Thunder quickly swept the New Orleans Pelicans and the Mavericks eliminated a banged-up & old Los Angeles Clippers squad in 6 games to set up the two subjects of this piece's meeting in the Western Semis.  

OKC vs Dallas, featuring a meeting between arguably the two best guards in the NBA in SGA & Luka. 

OKC landed the first punch, winning Game 1 by a blowout 22-pt margin behind 66 combined points poured in from SGA, Chet & J-Dub. Dallas stole home court advantage in Game 2, however, with none other than P.J. Washington tying Luka for the team lead in points with 29, and leading the team in rebounds with 11. A stinging loss for OKC, make no mistake. A team that worked so hard to earn home court throughout the West playoffs lost that right just like that to a player they, once again, could've & should have easily been able to acquire at the trade deadline in Washington. To make matters worse for the Thunder in this regard, Washington AGAIN led the Mavs in scoring in Game 3 back in Dallas with 27. Washington scored 20+ for the third consecutive game in Game 4, but OKC would steal home court back behind a masterful, midrange-laden 34-point effort from Gilgeous-Alexander. 

Dallas Mavericks' P.J. Washington vs OKC.

P.J. Washington was flat-out dominant for the Mavs in Games 2-4 vs OKC, as he averaged 25.6 PPG & 9.7 RPG with 17 three-pointers made in total.

What would proceed to take place over the next 2 games of the series followed a well-documented theme throughout the NBA's 77-year history. 

Role players win you playoff games. 

Superstars close out playoff series. 

By his lofty standards, Luka Doncic was pretty dormant through the series' first 4 games, averaging just 22 points, 10.8 boards, and 7.8 assists, which feels comical to type for a 25-year-old dealing with multiple nagging injuries, reportedly including a sore knee, a sprained ankle, a barking back & an aching Achilles tendon. But the great ones always find a way to play, persevere, and power through pain. Unsurprisingly, Luka did just that in Games 5 & 6.  

"Luka Magic" was in full effect for the entirety of Game 5. Luka controlled the pace and tempo throughout, and put together what was easily his best performance of the series -- a 31-10-11 triple-double, unleashing highlight play after highlight play in Oklahoma City, including an insane full court alley-oop to Dereck Lively early in the 2nd quarter. 

The Mavs would win Game 5 by twelve points to set up a closeout opportunity back home in Game 6. 

Closeout games may be the toughest type of games to win in postseason play, in any sport. They're often ugly & unrelenting. The other team will play with such ferocity and intensity that if not matched by your group, can easily result in defeat.  

Kyrie, though -- the Mavs' other star -- seems to have no problem at all in that scenario.  

Irving entered Game 6 with a sterling 13-0 record in closeout games, with the bulk of those victories coming while serving as LeBron James' "Robin" during the duo's run together with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Irving did just enjoy an explosive 30-point Game 6 in Dallas' previous series vs the Clippers, where he dazzled with his usual elite combination of ball-handling and shot-making. 

If the descriptive word for Luka's first 4 games of the series was "dormant", Kyrie's first 5 can only be recounted as comatose. Irving didn't reach his season's scoring average in any of the initial four games, including two -- two! -- separate 9-pt games in Games 2 & 4. Not ideal, obviously, but Kyrie's resume in big moments speaks for itself. In becoming an NBA champion in 2016 with the Cavs, he unanimously owns the crown for the biggest shot ever made in league history, a clutch, confident, tie-breaking 3-pointer from the right wing to lift Cleveland to their first championship in the history of the franchise.  

That being said, it was an inefficient struggle again for Irving in Game 6, scoring just 22 points on 23 shots. He showed up in the 4th, though, with 8 points & 2 threes made in the final frame. Luka put together his second consecutive triple-double to put Dallas in position to win late.  

And at the end? 

You guessed it. P.J. Washington, who cashed in 2 threes of his own in the 4th, was fouled in his attempt to hit another by SGA with 2.5 seconds remaining with the Mavs down by 1. Washington made the first two free throws to take the lead for Dallas, and wisely missed the final FT intentionally to set up a desperation heave from Jalen Williams to run out the clock, as OKC had no timeouts remaining to advance the ball and set up a potential game-winner. 

SGA's costly foul of P.J. Washington on a three-point attempt wound up shutting the door on what was an extremely prosperous Thunder season.

SGA's costly foul of P.J. Washington on a three-point attempt wound up shutting the door on what was an extremely prosperous Thunder season.

Series over, Mavs to the West Finals, OKC to Cancun (or to Galveston, TX to join the Pelicans, maybe.) 

Make no mistake: P.J. Washington (and Gafford, who averaged 11 points, 7.5 boards, and 2 blocked shots in backup center duty) won this series for Dallas. The decision that the Mavericks made (and that the Thunder did not make) to acquire win-now pieces for the postseason decided a series that remarkably finished at a 636-636 deadlock in terms of total points scored by either team.  

That's not all. The Mavs' acquisitions of Washington and Gafford in combination with Dereck Lively played a leading role in Dallas' dominance on the glass as well. After OKC won the rebounding battle in Game 1 by 13, Dallas proceeded to pound the Thunder on the glass for the remainder of the series, capped by a +13 in boards in Game 5 and a series-high +16 in Game 6. Chet Holmgren, who finished 2nd behind Victor Wembanyama in Rookie of the Year voting due to his combination of three-point touch and shot-blocking ability, will surely be motivated to stock up on protein and lock himself in the weight room after getting beat up on the boards repeatedly throughout this six-game set. 

Despite whatever pre-ordained plan Sam Presti and the Thunder front office entered the season with -- it was inexcusable to not pursue rounding out their roster with more aggression than just acquiring a past-his-prime Gordon Hayward. They had & still have all the picks -- 15 first rounders and 22 second rounders over the next 6 years. They had the tradeable contracts necessary to facilitate a quality deal in combination with all those picks. To just completely punt at this season's deadline was unconscionable to me. 

But hindsight is 20/20, and although it might seem insane to the masses, perhaps Presti, coach Mark Daigneault & co. genuinely believed that they had a group fully capable of winning the West, despite their deficiencies. NBA fans should fully expect OKC to be ultra-aggressive moving forward to take the next step into unquestioned title contention. 

But for now, it is the Mavericks in that spot, as they get set to face off against a feisty, ferocious Timberwolves squad that just put the defending champion Nuggets in such hell that Minnesota's HC Chris Finch told his team after their Game 7 victory that Denver's "tongues were on the ground". Dallas will have to contend with yet another superstar guard in Anthony Edwards, and a far more bigger, physical & playoff-seasoned squad in the Wolves, who, by the way, made their win-now move in trading 5 first-rounders for Rudy Gobert in the summer of 2022, which has aged like fine wine. 

Minnesota's Anthony Edwards will present significant problems for Doncic & Dallas to solve on both ends of the floor in the Western Conference Finals.

One of these two talented, battle-tested young teams will make their first breakthrough to the NBA Finals when the dust settles. 

The Mavericks will hope that their trade deadline masterclass will continue to pay dividends in order to achieve that goal. 


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